Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin are strapped into their Soyuz space craft ready for launch on October 11, 2018. And thankfully for the pair, take-off initially goes to plan. Then, after 90 seconds, the men’s capsule starts to shudder fiercely, while an alarm is also sounding. Something has gone badly wrong – and at this point, neither the astronauts nor ground control know how this is going to end.
The launch of the Russian Soyuz MS-10 space capsule, powered by a Soyuz rocket, was part of International Space Station Expedition 57. The early-morning launch was from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the mission had officially started on October 4, 2018, when Soyuz MS-08 had returned three astronauts from the space station back to Earth.
And Hague and Ovchinin were en route to the space station as replacements for those who’d left days earlier. They were to join three others already there: German geophysicist Alexander Gerst, American doctor and engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Sergei Prokopyev, a Russian commander and flight engineer. The trio had traveled to the space station aboard Soyuz MS-09, arriving on June 8, 2018.
The two new crew members aboard MS-10 had taken different paths to get to this point, however. American astronaut Hague had been born in 1975 in Belleville, Kansas, although he had attended high school in Hoxie. He possesses a master’s degree in aerospace engineering earned from MIT and graduated as a NASA astronaut in 2013. That’s not all, either: Hague has also been in the U.S. Air Force since 1998, rising to the rank of colonel.
And Hague spent some of his time in the Air Force as a test pilot, flying F-16s, F-15s and T-38s. Then, after finishing his astronaut training in 2015, he was given his first mission as a flight engineer bound for the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 57. Hague, a keen Doctor Who aficionado, is married to Lieutenant Colonel Catie Hague, and the pair are parents to two children.
Meanwhile, Russian cosmonaut Ovchinin had been born in 1971 in the Russian city of Rybinsk, graduating as a pilot-engineer from Yeisk Higher Military Pilot School in 1992. Ovchinin subsequently became a pilot instructor, followed by a commander of the Krasnodar Military Aviation Institute and then a commander of a Russian aviation unit. He secured a place at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 2006.
After that, Ovchinin qualified as a cosmonaut in 2010 and was named as a backup member for the March 2015 Soyuz TMA-16M mission. Then, in 2016 he made his first journey into space as part of International Space Station Expedition 47/48; he was the Soyuz TMA-20M’s commander and spent 172 days in orbit on the space station. Ovchinin is married to Svetlana – with whom he has a daughter – while he also has a penchant for outdoors activities such as fishing and hunting.
And, naturally, Hague and Ovchinin had been preparing for their mission for many months. The NASA website would explain what was to happen on the day of the launch: early in the morning of October 11, 2018, the Soyuz rocket would blast the men into orbit aboard their MS-10 space capsule.
The astronauts would then orbit Earth four times before docking with the space station six hours after the flight’s launch. Around two hours later, meanwhile, the connecting hatches of the space station and the men’s capsule would open. Ovchinin and Hague would then enter the station to unite with their three colleagues already on board.
And once they were safely aboard the space station, Hague and Ovchinin were to be working on a wide range of scientific experiments – including research into physical and Earth sciences as well as biotechnology. Furthermore, the research would all be conducted in the unique setting of a microgravity-environment lab – humankind’s only constantly occupied such example.
Then October 11, 2018, rolled round, and it was time for Hague and Ovchinin to clamber aboard their cramped spacecraft. And once strapped in, the pair awaited the final countdown from mission control in what would take them to lift-off. The moment they’d spent so long training for was upon them.
The rocket was then fired up, and lift-off came exactly as expected – the men were on their way. But just 90 seconds after take-off, it became all too clear that things were not going to plan. The astronauts were being violently shaken about in their capsule, for one.
Indeed, it appeared as if the two crew members were now in an emergency situation, since one of the Soyuz rocket’s array of booster units appeared to have failed to disengage properly. The rocket has three booster stages that power the capsule into its orbit. Once they are spent, the units should then be jettisoned to fall back to Earth.
But it seems that separation had failed to occur as it should have during one of the stages. This failure therefore meant that the mission was aborted, and the capsule would have to be rerouted to head back to Earth. The return journey, furthermore, would involve a procedure called a “ballistic descent.”
Now, far from heading to the International Space Station as they’d expected, the two men could only hope that their capsule would get them back to Earth in one piece. And as a consequence, Ovchinin and Hague had to utilize part of their training that they may have hoped never to need.
The men’s descent back to Earth then started. And Reid Wiseman from the NASA Astronaut Office would describe the procedure to CNN in October 2018. “It’s like shooting a bullet out of a rifle barrel,” he said. “It starts slowly spinning the descent module so that it has aerodynamic stability as it comes back through the thicker parts of the atmosphere. And then the parachute comes out, and they land.”
Fortunately, the emergency landing worked flawlessly, with Hague and Ovchinin’s capsule landing some 12 miles from the Kazakh city of Jezkazgan. Rescue crews are always in place for Soyuz launches, and a helicopter soon found the men and duly helped them from the capsule. And, amazingly, the two were seemingly left unscathed by their experience.
Then Hague and Ovchinin immediately underwent a battery of medical checks before getting the chance to reunite with loved ones. We can only imagine the thoughts that must have gone through the families’ minds as the emergency unfolded. And, of course, the whole incident was witnessed via a live broadcast.
Still, even despite his ordeal, Hague was phlegmatic when talking about the launch in a subsequent interview. “I imagined that my first trip to outer space was going to be a memorable one. I didn’t expect it to be quite this memorable,” he said understatedly.
Hague was also keen to credit the engineers responsible for the Soyuz rocket’s safety systems, since their work meant that he and Ovchinin had survived. “That’s the system that saved our lives, and Alexey and I are standing because of that,” he explained. “For manned launches on the Soyuz, they haven’t had to use that system for 35 years. But it’s always been there. It’s always been ready, and we proved that last week.”